The Politics of Higher Education: Analyses, Assessments, Alternatives

Conveners: Pieter Pekelharing (University of Amsterdam) and Hans Radder (VU University Amsterdam)

During the past 35 years, institutes of higher education and the environments in which they are embedded have undergone significant changes. In this workshop, we will focus on the changes brought about in the organization of the research, teaching and administration of universities, and on the changed interactions between universities and the outside world. These transformations have been described in different terms. One possible characterization is in terms of four kinds of processes: hierarchization, bureaucratization, commodification, and financialization. That is to say: first, the governance of universities has become the business of an ever smaller number of professional administrators, while the voices of students and of academic and support staff have decreased correspondingly; second, a separate layer of managers has arisen, which is bureaucratically implementing the policies of administrators in increasingly extensive and fine-grained ways; third, all kinds of decisions that affect the organization and nature of teaching, research and governance are taken primarily on the basis of economic criteria, at the expense of more substantive arguments; fourth, the increasing dependency on haute finance means that universities are being played into the hands of big banks and private investors, thus making it more difficult for public values and concerns to be heard.

This perspective on changes within and outside universities, and the effects they have had on the politics of higher education, suggests the following four sets of research questions for the workshop.

(1) The four kinds of processes should not be seen as universal regularities but as significant patterns. This leads to a first set of research questions. How significant have these patterns been: over time, in different countries, for different types of universities, in different disciplines?

(2) A second set of questions addresses the (internal and external) causes of these transformations. Relevant developments include the impact of New Public Management and neoliberal politics and world views, the effects of financialization, and the rise of Mode-2 or post-academic science.

(3) A third group of questions pertains to the evaluation of the transformations. Obviously, such evaluations presuppose a view of the aims of university research and teaching. What are universities for? Relevant ideas to be discussed under this heading are: academic self-formation (Bildung); accountability to society; scientific and academic knowledge as a common good; and the public interest of science and scholarship.

(4) Assuming that the current state of affairs is seen to require change for the better, a final cluster of questions addresses the political opportunities and procedures for realizing this change. For instance, should universities govern themselves in more democratic ways? If so, how can this be brought about? Does more democracy automatically mean more autonomy, or should these concepts be kept apart? Obviously, the answers will depend on the nature and extent of the proposed changes and on the political situation of different universities and different countries.

Interested researchers are invited to submit either a full paper or an extended abstract of 1500 words on one or more of the research questions described above. Send your digital file before May 20 to Hans Radder ( The submitted papers will be reviewed by the workshop conveners in terms of their relevance, quality and coverage of the research questions. The maximum number of papers that can be accepted will probably be about 12. Potential participants will receive a decision about acceptance or rejection of their paper before June 5. If your paper has been accepted, all organizational matters will be handled by the MANCEPT organization.